SARATOGA SPRINGS – Between 2007 and 2013, Bethany Parks was essentially homeless every summer.
Parks was in her 40s at the time and newly divorced after a 17-year-marriage when she found her way to Saratoga Springs, where new friends said they’d be happy to rent out their home during the fall, winter and spring. She just needed to be out during the annual horse racing meet at Saratoga Race Course.
“I walked in, and they came and said hello to me, and I just started crying. I was sobbing. ‘Oh my god. I don’t know where to live.’ Like, how embarrassing,” Parks recalled of her arrival in Saratoga. “And they said, ‘We have a house for you.’ ”
Parks, now 55, said she felt extremely grateful for the help.
That immediate embrace by the community, combined with the fact that she was uprooted every summer and therefore regularly reminded of the importance of a home, might be exactly why Parks has now spent so much time, energy and money fixing up historic homes in the region.
Parks works full time as a director of sales at Source International, a Massachusetts-based furniture company that specializes in office chairs. But her passion is turning old homes into treasures. She’s already transformed a 1932 duplex in Greenwich and is currently working on rehabbing two more Greenwich properties at Mill Hollow that date to the 1790s.
But her pride and joy in Saratoga Springs is a revamped 1832 house on Franklin Street. Since 2019, she’s called the now-two-bedroom, cottage-like house her home.
Parks said she never would have been able to turn the Franklin Street house into what it’s become without the help of Mark Samu, an architectural photographer and experienced home renovator who Parks met on a dating app in March 2020 — literally on the day that pandemic restrictions shuttered establishments in downtown Saratoga Springs.
Then again, meeting Samu and developing a companionship and working relationship with him matched Parks’ overall experience in Saratoga Springs, where people have made all the difference.
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Parks shared her story while sipping coffee at the quartz island in her renovated kitchen on Franklin Street. She has a confidence but also an air of gratitude about her, occasionally breaking strong eye contact to look up, as if thinking, “How has this all worked out?” She also has a stylish appearance with baby blue nail polish that matched her eyes, and “hippy-ish” bracelets, including one that says “Be Still,” which reminds her to be present. These details add pops of color, much like the yellow paint on her front door and the chartreuse paint she’s added to a wall in the back of the house.
Originally from Highland in Ulster County, Parks earned her degree in psychology from the University at Albany and lived with her ex-husband in Charlton. Years ago, her parents relocated to Binghamton for her father’s job at IBM, and she doesn’t have immediate family in the Saratoga area.
While Parks has spent her career in sales, she says, “homes are adventures for me.”
When Parks first arrived in the Spa City following her divorce, summers were adventures. She spent three seasons out of each year living in town, and “every summer I turned into kind of like a gypsy” as her friends used the home for track season.
The first summer she spent one week biking across New York, two weeks as a camp counselor and stayed with friends for a bit. She was signed up for a half Ironman race in New Hampshire at the end of the summer, but when cold symptoms got progressively worse, she pulled out and saw a doctor. Tests revealed she had breast cancer.
“People helped me again,” Parks said. “The people from Saratoga that I’ve met, they brought me food, they took me to doctors. They showed up for me.”
After a double mastectomy and nearly a year of treatment, including radiation and chemotherapy, Parks was moving on with her life.
But dealing with cancer made Parks reassess her priorities. Somehow, selling furniture, which she was doing on commission at the time, just didn’t seem to matter all that much.
“What am I doing? Selling some chairs?” she said. “Who cares?” She decided to prioritize other parts of her life.
In the summer of 2010, Parks spent three months in Kenya volunteering at an orphanage she found on Idealist. As a 42-year-old, she lived in a bunk room with American college students who were her fellow volunteers. The experience moved Parks, and she returned to Kenya the next summer and contemplated making it a longer-term arrangement.
Ultimately, she decided she wanted to return to her community in upstate New York.
And no longer did she want to be a renter; she wanted to plant roots. In June 2013, she found a 1932 duplex in Greenwich for $110,000. Sitting on roughly half an acre, the home had a large wraparound porch and beautiful wood doors that caught Parks’ eye. But it also needed a lot of work. There was a toilet in a closet; squirrels were living in the attic. The house needed to be gutted.
Then, at a doctor’s appointment that August, blood work revealed she had leukemia.
She had to spend a month at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Parks told her contractor to hold off on the remodel. Who knew what her life would look like?
“And this guy said to me, ‘I’m gonna build a house for you.’ ”
Roughly a year later, she’d gotten past leukemia as she had with breast cancer, and she had herself a remodeled duplex. She rented out one side to cover the mortgage and lived in the other side. She spent five years in the duplex, but when her mother died in 2019, Parks realized she missed the walkability and the neighborhood feel of Saratoga Springs. She missed the larger community.
Unable to afford real estate in Saratoga Springs, Parks decided to rent the home on Franklin Street. It was a great location down the block from what’s believed to be the oldest home in the city, and just a few blocks from the shops and restaurants of Broadway. But the state of the home left plenty to be desired. The kitchen floor was a pallid linoleum, the cabinets a dark brown.
A perfect match
She was renting the home on Franklin Street when she matched with Samu on Tinder. Their first date was at Uncommon Grounds in March of 2020, and they quickly bonded over their fondness for homes and architecture.
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Samu, a Long Island native, had moved upstate with his late wife Lucianna in 2001 — on Sept. 11, in fact. Together, the couple, who both worked professionally in home remodeling, had fixed up several properties in the greater Saratoga area. Lucianna died in June 2019 of lung cancer. She and Samu had lived in a 3,000-square-foot 1780s home on five acres on the Hudson River in Gansevoort. When Parks met Samu, he was splitting his time between the river home and a 300-square-foot apartment in Saratoga Springs. He’s since sold the river property and used the money for redevelopment work, including two projects on Cossayuna Lake in Washington County.
“He was funny. He was smart. And then he started talking about this house stuff. He told me that it was the first project he was doing by himself. And I was like, ‘What do you mean by yourself?’ His wife had always been the designer. So this was him taking her [inspiration], doing it on his own.”
Parks and Samu were deep in conversation during their first date when a staff member told them they needed to leave because the restaurant was closing as a result of COVID-19. Parks and Samu tried to go to other restaurants, but everywhere was shutting down.
“And then we just started walking,” Parks said. “We just walked and walked and walked.”
They essentially quarantined together in the early days of the pandemic, and that’s when Parks told her how much she would love to buy the home on Franklin Street and fix it up. Samu, who is good with numbers, took an objective look at Parks’ budget, and together they talked through what it would take to make the finances work. It was the start of an ongoing partnership in which they consult each other and help complete the projects, though they don’t necessarily buy properties together.
“I’m on Team Mark and Mark is on Team Bethany,” Parks said.
They are fans of scrawling out brainstorms on large pieces of cardboard. And during actual construction, Parks is more likely to be the one to step on a ladder and use a Sawzall for demolition.
“It’s a big old power tool that I just love,” Parks said. (Of course, they also rely heavily on professional contractors.)
At the house on Franklin Street, Parks and Samu have turned a dated rental into a gem. They took down the old cabinets. They blew out a kitchen window overlooking the back lawn to bring in more natural light. They took down a downstairs closet and turned a bedroom into a dining room. They added pantries. They built a wall upstairs to create a closet.
In the kitchen, Parks used hardware from the 1932 Greenwich house not only to save money but to provide vintage character to the renovated interior. On the back deck, she hung old doors from the Greenwich house to create privacy.
Parks said she realized how close she and Samu had become when she received a phone call from Glens Falls Hospital in November of 2020.
Samu, who works with horses early in the morning, had been kicked in the face. His nose was broken and the orbital floor of his eye was shattered. He was being transferred to Albany Medical Center. Parks, who for so many years had relied on the help of friends, rushed to Samu’s side.
Today, Samu has to wear a patch on his right eye, but Parks said Samu remains grateful the damage wasn’t worse — a horse kick to the skull could be fatal.
She and Samu are currently brainstorming how to renovate one of Samu’s properties on Cossayuna Lake and are collaborating to help rebuild Parks’ 1790s properties at Mill Hollow. Parks has gutted one property to the studs and is currently thinking hard about how to handle the original slate roof, which leaks but could be salvageable.
On a sunny but cool mid-September day, Parks stepped onto the porch of her Franklin Street home. Barefoot, she collected the mail and then padded down the front steps because she noticed a metal roof on the home across the street. She’s not sure metal will work at Mill Hollow. Maybe shingles. Maybe new slate. Or maybe she can just have the original roof patched.
Outside her home on Franklin Street, she said, “I’m thinking a lot about roofs these days.”